Kids and museums – do the two words even belong together in the same sentence? It very much depends which side of the divide you fall on. If your idea of an afternoon at an art gallery or a museum involves quiet, reverent contemplation of an artwork in hushed surroundings, then you are likely to consider the pitter-patter of tiny feet, the army of Bugaboos crowding the lifts, the raised voices of schoolteachers trying to deliver some little nugget of art wisdom to a horde of bored, restless schoolchildren, a huge nuisance and an annoying imposition. Indeed, British artist Jake Chapman, one half of the Chapman Brothers duo, has gone so far as to call parents “arrogant” for thinking children can understand and appreciate the works of artists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko and has said that dragging children around art galleries is a “total waste of time”.
Not surprisingly, that provocative statement (and it probably was meant to provoke) was resoundingly rebutted by many. Fellow artist and Turner Prize-winner Antony Gormley responded by countering that his experiences of seeing art as a child had made a lasting and valuable impression. “I don’t think art is to be understood – it’s to be experienced,” he said, adding, “I wouldn’t be an artist today if I had not been taken to art galleries as a child. Yes, I didn’t understand the history or the principles out of which modernity arose, but that didn’t stop me from understanding vitality, horror, confusion.”
Other experts quickly weighed in, with the head of learning at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, Beth Schneider, speaking of the value of stimulating children with art and arguing that it in no way “… diminishes the accomplishment or complexity that great works of art can have”, for children to be encouraged to enjoy and appreciate them at whatever level they are able to. Her argument is convincing: “No one would say you shouldn’t take a child to a science or natural history museum because they don’t understand what they’re seeing at the level of the greatest in the world. Everyone comes at their own level.”
A National Gallery spokesman also responded, by saying, “children benefit a great deal from visiting art galleries and museums … it widens their horizons, can develop inquisitiveness and curiosity about the world, boost creativity, and foster craftsmanship and storytelling”.
Arguments about the capacity of children to enjoy and appreciate art aside, from a purely pragmatic point of view, denying access to babies, toddlers and children means cutting out a large segment of gallery and museum-visitors – the parents of these children (unless they live in countries like Singapore, where access to domestic help is widely available). Amid concerns about both declining birth-rates and declining attendance at museums, can we afford to give couples contemplating starting a family one more reason to reconsider having children or reduce visitor-numbers further at cultural institutions? I well remember those Baby Einstein years and, no offence to Baby Einstein (those videos certainly came in useful when I desperately needed to take a shower!) but, if this is all that an art-lover parent has to look forward to … no, just … No.
And if children are to be barred from having access to art (the real thing, not an image in a book or on a computer or tv screen) from a young age, how, then, are they going to grow up to become people who feel comfortable visiting a gallery or a museum, who enjoy and appreciate looking at and experiencing art? Who, then, will buy the work of artists like Jake Chapman?
One of the joys of having children is the pleasure of introducing them to the things that you enjoy, whether it be books, music, theatre, sports, fashion, food or, yes, art. Inasmuch as a foodie parent rejoices when his once-pureed-pea-eating infant becomes a gangly teenager capable of besting him in the number of briyani rice refills at their favourite Indian banana-leaf curry place, or a parent who is a Queen fan delights in his kid’s ability to sing along to Bohemian Rhapsody word for word and pitch-change for pitch-change – if you love art, it is a delightful pleasure to share that with your child and to watch as his or her eyes light up with wonder or curiosity or even to see him wrinkle his nose or recoil in disgust. Art is about experience, not understanding, although that can sometimes be helpful. It is not necessary to be able to put art within an art historical context or to be able to spout high-minded soundbites about art in order to enjoy it.
Fortunately, many museums and galleries seem to feel the same way and have gone out of their way to make even the tiniest visitors feel welcome and to make their works of art accessible to them. My family and I have particularly appreciated it when a museum has customised audio tours available, which are specifically targeted at children and young people. I well remember an enjoyable day at no less illustrious an institution than the Louvre, where my sons were thoroughly immersed in audio tours in which their “guides” were an Egyptian slave (in the Egyptian galleries) and a musketeer (in the Sun King, Louis IV galleries). These audio tours were as interesting and informative to me, an adult, as it was to the boys. (By the way, the Louvre has upped its game as, on a more recent visit, we found that their audio tours are now on Nintendo 3DS XL devices.)
Here in Singapore, both the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) and the National Gallery Singapore (NGS) have activities, events and resources specially designed for children of all ages, ranging from pre-schoolers to teenagers. SAM organises a very popular child-focused exhibition annually, to coincide with the mid-year long school break, and these have always been engaging, interactive shows that never fail to delight and ignite the imagination of young visitors. In its 6th year, this year’s exhibition, Imaginarium: Over the Ocean, Under the Sea is still ongoing and will close on 28 August 2016. The exhibition revolves around the theme of seascapes and presents a number of tactile and interactive works that are not only visually engaging but also invite reflection about our environmental impact and what we might do to protect the natural world and our seas and oceans. See, for example, this work by Indonesian artist Mulyana, whom we had the pleasure of meeting on our recent trip to Yogyakarta (see U’s Jogja Joget Travelogs I and II), and who whipped out his ball of yarn and needles and busily crochet-ed away while waiting for our dinner to be served!
That said, the grouses of adult visitors about shrieking, running kids-gone-wild at museums are not completely baseless. Many of us have seen this video that went viral on social media several months ago, of two children who were let loose by their accompanying adults to frolic beyond the barriers protecting a fragile glass work of art, eventually breaking it.
If you want to share the pleasures of visiting an art museum with your children, teach them to respect other museum visitors and the precious works of art on display. Here is a quirky little animated video that illustrates the basic dos and don’ts at a museum really well. As an added bonus, the last couple of minutes also covers what not to do when going to the theatre.
In addition to bringing your children to art exhibitions, galleries and museums, if you are also a book-lover, there is a plethora of books about art to share with them. These two, in particular, published by Phaidon press, are excellent.
When you are visiting museums overseas, don’t forget to look in the museum shop as some museums publish excellent books for children that focus solely on the museum’s own collection of works. These make a lovely souvenir of your visit and enable you and your children to enjoy the artworks you saw together, long after you return home.
I recently met Malaysian actor-director-writer Jo Kukathas and we fell into conversation about the Malaysian art scene and Malaysian artists. I was delighted to learn about her book, The Malaysian Art Book for Children, and would love to see more such books on Southeast Asian modern and contemporary art for children made available here (hint, hint, NGS or SAM?)
In an article in the Guardian about the Jake Chapman controversy, the author lamented the fact that, at a recent visit to the MOMA, she saw children being asked to pose for photographs in front of Vincent Van Gogh‘s Starry Night, instead of being encouraged to look at this incredible painting. She then said that it is cameras, not children, that should be banned from museums. While I agree that this preoccupation with taking photographs, if carried too far, defeats the purpose and detracts from the experience, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that cameras should be banned. In fact, in this age of selfies and Instagram, I think it would be a lost cause to attempt to stop people from taking photographs at museums. Do remember, however, to look at, and enjoy, an artwork with your children, before posing them for a photograph. And – if you are going to take a photograph (see how adorable Junior looks standing in front of that painting!) here is an Instagram account just for folks like you – and me!